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Films about migrants are not rare especially these days. Every country in the world suffers from some version of a migrant crisis, too many people coming in or leaving. We hear about the migrant caravans in the US more and more every day just as we hear about the waves of immigrants flooding through the Middle East into Turkey, Greece and western Europe. Of course it’s usually racists that have a problem with this. A Land Imagined takes a sympathetic look at a different perceived migrant crisis in Singapore.
Detective Lok (Peter Yu) is a Singaporean police officer looking for vanished Chinese migrant worker Wang (Liu Xiaoyi). Wang was working for a construction company of ill repute on a land reclamation contract on Singapore’s coast. As Lok investigates further he comes across Mindy (Luna Kwok) an internet café attendant who was instrumental in Wang’s addiction to a mysterious video game and the kindly Ajit (Ishtiaque Zico) one of Wang’s fellow workers from Bangladesh.
A Land Imagined doesn’t often seem to see where it’s heading. To writer and director Yeo Siew Hua the journey is more important than the destination. This would normally be a problem in a mystery thriller such as this. Yet, A Land Imagined is never really about the mystery. It’s more about the migrant experience in Singapore. Lok’s investigation dominates the first and last 20 minutes of the film while a flashback to the events leading up to Wang’s disappearance takes over the rest of A Land Imagined in a dreamlike haze.
Compared to other films from around Asia that focus on or feature the migrant experience A Land Imagined is clearly the most sympathetic. It’s more caring than the confused and messy Crossroads: One Two Jaga and a lot more realistic than the purgatorial Only God Forgives. Of the two of these A Land Imagined borrows a great deal more from Nicolas Winding Refn’s playbook. Neon drenches every night time scene and Teo Wei Yong’s score borrows heavily from the synth crawl of Drive and the jazzy karaoke scenes of Only God Forgives.
As the fifty minute flashback that makes up the majority of the film goes on it becomes more and more dreamlike before ending in a tripped out, glitchy breakdown of the video game Wang plays every night. The faceless avatars and Wang’s poor playing coalesce into a metaphor for migrant workers being swallowed up and replaced by the unjust cheap labour system that is fuelling the island city’s construction.
Considering one of last year’s most successful blockbusters was set almost entirely in Singapore it’s a brave decision by Hua to criticise his home country so brazenly. Instead of the bustling, eco-friendly metropolis that Crazy Rich Asians presented to the world Hua’s version of Singapore is a rambling, cramped shanty town more likely to kill than care for those who build it. It’s a damning portrait of a country that is seen as a leader in healthcare, education and business. Hua paints the country as, literally, a land imagined.
A Land Imagined never really wraps up its supposedly central mystery in a satisfying way. But as the film goes on and Lok’s investigation takes a backseat to Wang’s plight it’s clear that the mystery of his disappearance was never really a mystery at all. The mystery instead is how one of the world’s leading nations can be so blind to those that travelled to it seeking a better life, finding only hardship and hopelessness?